Politics & Government

New South Carolina laws go into effect Monday

The scene at SC State House on May 1 as thousands of teachers rally

An estimated 7,000 teachers rallied on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at the South Carolina State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.
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An estimated 7,000 teachers rallied on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at the South Carolina State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.

The S.C. General Assembly passed scores of new laws this year, some of which take effect Monday with the July 1 start of the state’s 2019-20 budget.

Here is a rundown of those changes and how they will affect South Carolinians.

Pay raises for state employees

The state’s 32,000 employees will get at least a 2% pay raise, starting in July.

On top of that, workers who earn less than $70,000 a year also will get a one-time $600 bonus.

Lawmakers are spending an extra $61 million this year on the raise and one-time bonus in an effort to retain state workers who have complained their low pay leads to high turnover and poor morale.

Most state employees haven’t had a raise in two years.

Teachers will get an even bigger pay raise

Improving South Carolina’s struggling public schools was the No. 1-stated priority of the General Assembly this year.

While state lawmakers failed to pass comprehensive education reform, they did agree to spend roughly $159 million more a year, starting July 1, to raise teacher pay in an effort to keep frustrated educators from fleeing the profession.

The money will raise pay for all 52,000 public school teachers in South Carolina by at least 4%.

Younger, less experienced teachers will get bigger raises than their more experienced counterparts as lawmakers seek to attract new educators and keep them in the classroom. The raise also will bump first-year teachers’ salaries by nearly 9.4% – to $35,000.

Teachers who choose to be paid only during the academic year – and not the summer – will see the increase in their paychecks when students return to school in August.

Gas tax increase

Starting Monday, South Carolina’s gas tax will rise another 2 cents per gallon, thanks to the rolling implementation of a 12-cent gas-tax hike approved by state lawmakers in 2017.

Drivers have paid a combined $198 million more for gas at S.C. pumps over the past two years, thanks to the higher tax that is meant to pay for road paving, interstate widening and road safety improvements.

Drivers are now paying 6 cents per gallon more in taxes than they were before the law was passed, and the gas tax will rise another six cents over the next three years.

South Carolina's gas tax will increase 2 cents on July 1, 2019, to 22 cents per gallon. The 22 cents will fund highway maintenance.

Smaller tuition hikes

For the first time in years, S.C. lawmakers invested significantly more money in higher education to stave off tuition hikes for students from the Palmetto State. The state will spend $36 million more next year to keep tuition low, plus another $100 million to pay for college construction, maintenance and renovation projects that otherwise could contribute to tuition hikes.

That spending becomes official when the budget goes into effect Monday, but it already has made a noticeable impact at S.C. colleges, including:

The University of South Carolina, which raised its tuition this summer by less than 1% — the smallest hike in decades — after a nearly 3% hike last year;

The University of South Carolina’s Law School — the state’s only public law school — which lowered its tuition by $5,100 because of money set aside this year by state lawmakers;

Clemson University, which raised its 2019-20 tuition for in-state students by 1% this summer after a 1.75% hike last year;

The College of Charleston, which raised its tuition by 0.8% this year after a 3.5% hike last year;

Coastal Carolina University, which raised its tuition by less than 1% after a nearly 3% jump last year; and

The Citadel, which raised tuition by 0.8% this year after a 3.2% hike last year.

Veterans get their own state agency

S.C. lawmakers this year created a new Cabinet agency specifically to serve veterans, helping them access services and benefits they have earned.

The Department of Veterans Affairs officially becomes a Cabinet-level agency — reporting directly to GOP Gov. Henry McMaster — on July 1 after the passage of H. 3438. The bill was authored by former state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens. It passed the House and Senate unanimously with McMaster’s backing.

Previously, Veterans Affairs was a division housed within the Department of Administration.

Tax liens soon could be easier to search online

The General Assembly this year empowered the state Department of Revenue to create an online system for filing and storing tax liens that can be easily accessed by the public.

S. 160, which goes into effect Monday, is expected to make it easier to find out if someone has a lien filed against him or her in one of South Carolina’s 46 counties. Previously, an employer, business or real estate broker might have had to check with each county individually when searching for red flags on a person’s finances.

Though the proposal goes into effect Monday, the online system isn’t expected to be operational until January 2020 at the earliest, according to Dale Butts, the secretary and treasurer of the S.C. Association of Clerks of Court and Registers of Deeds.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that The Citadel is raising in-state tuition by 0.8% for the 2019-20 academic year, not 2.5%. The 2.5% figure was based on The Citadel’s November announcement. In June, the military college announced that tuition would be lower than previously announced.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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